It’s a common scenario for guitarists: you’ve joined a new band that calls for a new sound, or you simply want to change things up a bit – yes, it’s new amp time! But once you’ve decided which sounds you’re after, there’s another question to answer, and it’s this one: do you want the combo version, or the head and cab option? It’s a conundrum that confounds many players, so we got to wondering why amp makers often offer both, and – crucially – which is best for you and your gig?
Well, the answer to the ‘why make both?’ question is less about stage performance, and more about personal preference. Every guitarist is different, and every player demands something different from his or her rig. It might be a sound thing, or a simple matter of convenience or portability – and, as players, it’s great to have the options to choose from before you part with your hard-earned cash!
But sound is also a key issue when choosing a gigging amplifier, and combos and heads and cabs – even those which share the vast majority of their technical specs – can perform surprisingly differently at rockstar volumes.
Indeed, if you’re of the rock persuasion, there can be nothing that compares to standing in front of a hard-working full-stack as you devastate your crowd’s hearing at 100 paces. It just wouldn’t be the same if you were to crank your 1×12 or 2×12 combo, would it?
Well, no, it wouldn’t, and there’s a reason for this: the bigger the cab, the more air you’re going to shift, and the more low-end thump is going to be present in your all-important tone. That’s why, when you go to rock and metal shows, the guitarists are almost always plying their trade in front of a sizeable head and cab setup.
It doesn’t have to be a full stack, of course. These days, we’re mostly all micced through the PA anyway, and a massive 4×12 is not at all necessary. In fact, in almost all situations – anything barring stadiums, really – your stack is probably going to be too loud for the venue.
The fact is, if you’re playing your local bar and you crank your 100-watt head and 4×12 cab, you’re going to blow everyone’s head off, and risk damaging your hearing. Thankfully, the recent lunchbox amp trend – which has resulted in a wealth of brilliant little heads that roar even at living room levels – has given head and cab lovers a new lease of onstage life. But more on that later.
Combo amps remain a totally viable option live, and many country, pop and blues players still turn to them without hesitation. Alright, you possibly won’t see Slayer using one, but they’re plenty loud enough for most venues, even before you consider hooking them up to the PA.
There are certain tonal advantages associated with combos, too. For one, they usually have an open back (as opposed to cabs, which are usually closed) giving them an airier sound. Again, this can be useful for subtler playing styles.
Combos are also always going to give you a nicely matched and rounded tone. After all, they’re just your head and cab parts in the same box! With the sheer amount of different heads and cabs to choose from – not to mention different impedances to puzzle over and the prospect of having to go onstage with your own head and a foreign, mismatched cab – a simple combo, with everything always in its right place, can be a breath of fresh air to the stressed musician.
Sound-wise, then, it seems to be a case of choosing the amp setup that works best for your style of music. Do you down tune, whack up the gain and volume and incite a circle pit at every show? If so, a head and cab is most likely going to sound right up your street. If your tastes are milder, though, a combo’s the classier and cleaner way to go.
Thank the stars, then, that many amp makers do build many models in both styles! That means that if you’re a sucker for a certain brand, you can stay loyal either way – or just own both…
But, as we said before, buying a new amp is not just about sounds. The hassles of modern life mean that convenience is also a major consideration for many of us, and in that regard, combos and heads and cabs are different kettles of fish.
For starters, amps are heavy. Like, really heavy, especially if you’re packing plenty of watts. If you’re a more senior player, not that strong, or happen to live in a place like New York – where you’ll have to lug your rig up multiple flights of stairs for many gigs – some combos can be out of the question.
That might sound wimpish and daft, but let’s put this into perspective: some classic combos have weighed in at over 100lbs/45kgs. And they usually don’t have wheels, like many cabs. That’s a whole lot of weight to manage with one hand and a lousy carry handle!
A head and cab, though still heavy, can help split this weight up, even if it might result in an extra trip to the van. We reckon that would only put off the laziest of axe slingers.
Then there’s the stage management side. We’ve already said that a big head and cab can be overkill for all but the loftiest of venues, but one advantage of them is that you’ll always hear yourself on stage! With combos, this can be more difficult, even though their sound is more directional.
If you’re playing a gig with a dinky combo and the stage monitors are not up to scratch, you might be in trouble. If you need to hear yourself, slant the combo so it points directly at your stage position, or elevate it more by getting up on a stand, or even a chair – whatever you can lay your hands on!
This brings us to the last point, and it’s one we absolutely can’t forget. Coolness. As sad as it may be, looks matter to many of us when we’re up there strutting our stuff. And even if we’re not vain about our own appearance, we want our gear to match our style and our band image.
If you’re playing country, you’re not going to rock a pointy 8-string doublecut through a full stack. At least, we hope you’re not! It just wouldn’t feel right, and if you don’t feel right onstage, you’re not going to play a great show.
So again, if you’re in the market for a new gigging amp, get your thinking cap on, go out and explore your options. There’s a wealth of amps out there in a huge variety of formats. And yes, we’re well aware that we haven’t even touched on racks and digital modeling gear in this post. There just wasn’t the time this week, although there will be soon.
But we’d love to hear your thoughts on what’s best. Do you go all out head and cab, or are you a combo fanatic? Or do you mix and match depending on your next show? Do you pick your amps purely because of tonal considerations, or is portability your key concern?
Let us know! After all, we build amps for a living, and we’d love to know your thoughts…
First published: August 22 2014. Most recent update: October 12 2015.